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Launchpad: WHY BIRDS SING, by Nina Berkhout

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Last spring—as launches, festivals and other events were cancelled across the country—49th Shelf helped Canadian authors launch more than 50 new books with LAUNCHPAD. And now we're back this fall, but with a twist.

LAUNCHPAD 2.0 features new releases selected by great Canadian writers who've chosen books that absolutely deserve to find their way into the hands of readers.

Today, Amy Jones recommends Why Birds Sing, by Nina Berkhout, writing, “A bratty parrot, a group of whistlers, an opera singer who doesn’t sing—it’s impossible not to be charmed by the characters who inhabit Nina Berkhout’s Why Birds Sing. But this novel offers so much more than just a loveable, quirky cast of misfits, and Berkhout writes with an uncommon compassion and an uncanny understanding of what it means to be human. Why Birds Sing is an ode to the families we choose, and the love that chooses us (whether we want it to or not.) This is a beautiful novel full of humour, warmth, sorrow, and above all, music.”


49th Shelf: What particular something have you managed to achieve with this book that you’re especially proud of?

Nina Berkhout: I’m proud of having finished this one at all! I had a hard time finding an approach to whistling that felt “right.” After over a year of false starts came that nagging voice telling me that it wasn’t meant to be. But I couldn’t move on to something new. So I just worked at it mulishly until eventually, I got there. 

49th Shelf: Tell us about your ideal reader, and where you imagine them reading your book.

NB: My ideal reader is anyone willing to set aside their devices a few hours, for a change of scenery. I imagine them on a sofa by a window in the sun. Or outside under a tree, with the birds.

49th Shelf: What authors and works inspired you on your journey in creating this book?

NB: The devoted global community of whistlers—these incredibly passionate individuals who are part of an international chat forum—inspired me. I also listened to the whistling of Roger Whittaker, Ronnie Ronalde, Geert Chatrou, and others for hours on end (you’ll find them all on YouTube).

49th Shelf: What’s something you know now that you didn’t know when you set out to write your book?

NB: I didn’t know that parrots blush. Or that Congo African Greys have longer lifespans (40-70 years) than some of us. They’re more intelligent than a lot of people, too.

49th Shelf: Why whistling?

NB: My previous novels focused on nuclear war and addiction, and I was feeling weighed down by dark subjects. One day a song came on the radio and my partner and I were listening, and sort of whistling along. As joke I said, “I should write a story about whistling,” and he said, “Yes, you should!” And so it began.

49th Shelf: What bookstore are you most excited to walk into and see your book displayed on the shelf?

NB: My editor told me about a bookstore in Fairway, Kansas called Rainy Day Books. One of the staff there read Why Birds Sing and said that she would add it to her shelf of favourites. Although I can’t get to Kansas, it’s so neat to imagine my novel all the way there. If I could, I would visit Rainy Day to thank them.

49th Shelf: Who are you most grateful to for support in bringing your book into the world?

NB: My editor Jen Knoch and my publisher ECW Press. That Jen took the time to read an early draft, and saw something there, and wrote me a personal letter before we even began working together—well, I couldn’t wish for more than that. It takes a team to produce a book. All I did was the initial writing—the amazing people at ECW did everything else to make it all magically come together. I’m also grateful to the readers, and to authors like Amy Jones who support and encourage other writers, and to platforms like 49th Shelf that celebrate Canadian books!



Why Birds Sing is an ode to the families we choose, and the love that chooses us (whether we want it to or not.) This is a beautiful novel full of humour, warmth, sorrow, and above all, music.



Learn more about Why Birds Sing:

A charming, deeply felt novel about human connection and finding music between the notes

When opera singer Dawn Woodward has an onstage flameout, all she wants is to be left alone. She’s soon faced with other complications the day her husband announces her estranged brother-in-law, Tariq, is undergoing cancer treatment and moving in, his temperamental parrot in tow. To make matters worse, though she can’t whistle herself, she has been tasked with teaching arias to an outspoken group of devoted siffleurs who call themselves the Warblers. Eventually, Tariq and his bird join the class, and Dawn forms unexpected friendships with her new companions. But when her marriage shows signs of trouble and Tariq’s health declines, she begins questioning her foundations, including the career that she has worked so hard to build and the true nature of love and song.

October 23, 2020

Books mentioned in this post


Why Birds Sing

A Novel

by Nina Berkhout
edition: Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged: contemporary women, family life


After a very public onstage flameout, a disgraced opera singer is confronted with her crumbling marriage, a prickly and unexpected brother-in-law, and a cheeky parrot named Tulip — and she must learn to whistle her way through it all.

From the author of Harper’s Bazaar Hottest Breakout Novel The Gallery of Lost Species comes a charming, lively, …

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